A Necessary Evil?

Founding fathers and slavery

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819

Conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas is proposing national legislation that would prohibit Federal funds to any teacher, school or school district that uses content from the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project isn’t without its critics. The folks at the conservative Manhattan Project aren’t fans. But by my count, no one gets it 100 percent right. Not the 1619 Project, but in this case, certainly not Senator Cotton.

In defending his “defunding” of anyone associated with the 1619 Project, Mr. Cotton said this:

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

According to these same reports, Cotton claimed that instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”

There’s a whole lot wrong about Senator Cotton’s comments. Perhaps he was having a moment.  I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life and most of them – fortunately – were not to a reporter. But there are many claims here worth a historian’s review.

One thing to start. Lincoln was a great president – some would argue our greatest – but he was not a Founding Father.

To be sure, a fair and complete read of Lincoln’s history and record put him clearly in the anti-slavery camp. But when Lincoln unilaterally canceled emancipation proclamations by his generals, and then the following year signed the 1862 Confiscation Act that allowed the confiscation of rebel slaves because they were … well … “property,” abolitionist Horace Greely challenged the president to make clear his position on the abolition of slavery. Lincoln famously replied:

“…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that….”

Lincoln’s first duty was to the union, not the abolition of slavery.

But the phrase by Sen. Cotton that has (or had) everyone talking about, was his claim that the Founding Fathers felt that slavery was a “necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

From a historians’ perspective, there are quite a few problems with this one too. First, the Founding Fathers were not a monolith. They were different people with very different perspectives on a host of issues, slavery among them. Some might suggest that the few areas of agreement among them were Enlightenment ideals, deism, and independence from the King and parliament.

There was considerable diversity of opinion over the institution of slavery – from staunch abolitionists (Adams, Hamilton) to guilt-ridden patriots (Jefferson, Washington) to straight-up racists (Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and Georgia’s James Jackson).

As historian Stephen Ambrose has noted, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only one, George Washington, freed his. And of course there’s Jefferson, who penned the immortal “these truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But neither Jefferson nor the rest of our Founding Fathers put that into practice. Writes Amrose:

“Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people. He embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery.”

It would be hard to make the claim that there was a wide-spread consensus amongst the Founding Fathers that slavery was either “necessary” or “evil.” It would be easier to make the case that many (if not most) of the Founding Fathers saw slavery not as “necessary” but “normal.” Some in the paternalistic sense – that whites had the obligation to lift blacks out of their backward condition. Some, like Jefferson, in the very racist sense – that whites were inherently and genetically superior to blacks.

Perhaps the best “spin” that one could put on the Founding Fathers and slavery was their overall tolerance of it. Or perhaps one could use the word that historian Joseph Lewis used to describe the slavery debate amongst the revolutionary generation in is his Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Founding Brothers.” He titled that chapter of his book, “The Silence.”

Many of the Founding Fathers, knew the practice of slavery was evil but found it politically expedient to ignore and chose to pass the responsibility on to the next generation of Americans. And, as noted, aside from Washington this guilt did not drive them to free the hundreds and thousands of slaves they owned. Nor did it stop them from taking advantage of their position as slaveholders.

[Note that it did not stop Jefferson from having a long-term sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings which most historians believe began when Ms. Hemmings was only 14 years old. I’m sure most would put that in the ‘evil’ category but doubt anyone would argue it ‘necessary.’]

Was slavery “necessary”? Not economically. At least not in broadestr sense. The move by farmers and plantation owners from indentured servitude to slave labor helped large agribusinesses but it was a very bad deal for the working poor and lower-middle class.

Moreover, the acceleration of the slave trade came well after the U.S. independence and establishment of the U.S. Constitution. In that sense, the result of the Founding Fathers’ work was not to put slavery on the path to extinction, but rather on a path to spectacular growth. In 1790, three years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there were approximately 650,000 slaves in the United States. Just thirty years or approximately one generation later, that number doubled to 1.5 million. In another thirty years and on the eve of the Civil War in 1850, the number doubled again to 3 million. Enslaved people were not necessary for American independence. But many wealth landowners in the south felt they were essential for their own economic development and the sale of cotton and other agricultural goods. 

I guess one can argue that the acceptance of the heinous practice of slavery perhaps was necessary to get agreement amongst the thirteen colonies to support the nation’s rebellion against the British. Most specifically, it was a compromise to seal support from South Carolina, Georgia, and especially the nation’s largest state – Virginia. In that, it was less of a “necessity” and more a moral and ethical compromise – an acceptance of evil to ‘get the job done.’

The big problem with Senator Cotton’s position is one could read from his (wrong) interpretation of history that slavery was a reasonable “price to be paid” for the establishment of our union. It wasn’t and needn’t have been. Put more directly, it shouldn’t have been. And to believe so would be to pervert American ideas of democracy to an anti-democratic “ends justify the means” ideology – something more appropriate for Chairman Mao than General Washington.

The ultimate irony is that many African Americans –  those who suffered from slavery and segregation – likely agree with one thing Senator Cotton said about the U.S. That the U.S. is “imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”  Indeed, Nikole Hanna-Jones opens her 1619 essay noting that her father, a military veteran, proudly flew the U.S. flag outside their small home in rural Iowa despite all the hardships he had faced throughout his life as a black man.

You don’t have to agree with everything said or written in The New York Times 1619 Project. But slavery was a defining element of our first one hundred years of history. It was evil. It wasn’t necessary. And even after slavery’s official demise, its legacy of racism and white supremacy left a heavy imprint on our next one hundred years. And it remains with us today.

Facing and wrestling with the hard truth of our history is not anti-American. It is another form of patriotism.

Statues

Jefferson Davis statue monument avenue by barxtux

There’s a lot of talk about statues these days. Actually, a lot more than just talk. And even the “talk” is a euphemism. Not a good time to be a statue.

While Andrew Jackson and the founding fathers have been the source of some of the grumbling most attention has been given to Confederate statues.

There are those who say these statues glorify those who fought to maintain the right for white people to enslave black people. Others say these statues simply document figures in U.S. history. 

Both views are correct. This is exactly why so many communities are deciding to rid themselves of them!

A recent news report about yet another confederate statue being taken down provides a clue. In what was otherwise a piece on protesters, police and community groups there was a seemingly random “throwaway” line that, from a historical perspective, made all the difference.   It was this:

“The Lee statue was erected in 1904.”

Wait. 1904? A statue of Lee almost forty years after the end of the Civil War? Over thirty years after Lee’s death? (He died in 1870.)

Usually, statues and commemorations are made either contemporaneously or immediately after a hero’s demise. We were busy naming buildings and airports after President Ronald Reagan while he was still living. Why erect a Lee statue more than a generation after his death?

James Loewen – who both in appearance in whose voice is eerily similar to Bernie Sanders – wrote a book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything that You American History Textbook Got Wrong.” Loewen was a sociologist who became interested in historical landmarks. He found that “historical markers” – including statues – were less about accurately recording history and more about the motivation of interested parties to leave a marker or message for current and future generations on how to interpret that history.

His recurring admonition was, if you want to understand the meaning of a statue – particularly a Confederate statue – don’t look at what it is or what it says, focus on when it was erected.

The fact is that up until post-Reconstruction, most civil war monuments were in remembrance of the fallen. The Civil War was and remains the bloodiest in American history. Rough estimates are that it claimed somewhere between 610,000 to 750,000 lives. Monuments and markers honored the dead.

But ten years after the Civil War the United States and its northern Republican reformers began to tire from the pains of reconstruction. And by the end of the 1870s and with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, whites clawed back to power and quickly implemented a range of laws crippling the 15th amendment – everything from the infamous “grandfather clause” in Louisiana to poll taxes and literacy tests. Between that, intimidation, and outright violence and lynching, white supremacists regained government control.

They, in turn, engaged in a well-organized effort to recast the Civil War as that of a “lost cause” pursued by noble, honorable, and well-intentioned men of the South. They also wanted to remind the negro – that was the nicest word used back then – who was in charge. In addition to rewriting history, another motivating factor was intimidation and domination. That campaign included monuments that blanketed the South from 1890 to 1920, all with the help of Ku Klux Klan and associated organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The goal of these statues was to remind both radical Republicans and freed African American slaves that segregation would not only continue in the South but would be celebrated as worthy and noble. As Wiley M. Nash noted at the erection of a Confederate statue in 1908:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

The historical record is abundantly clear. These statues weren’t just about remembering history. They were about reinterpreting and ensuring a particular view or version of history – that of white supremacy – would be remembered in the future.

I grew up with these monuments as a boy in New Orleans. The Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1880. “Lee Circle” – the site of the Robert E. Lee statue erected in 1880 – was notable for its prominence as the main thoroughfare from the Central Business District to the Lower Garden District and a central stop for the city’s famous streetcars. No matter that General Lee had never visited the city of New Orleans!

New Orleans Mayor Landrieu took down the monument at Lee Circle. In his speech – which I recommend everyone read – he noted that:

“The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” 

Mayor Landrieu also repeated the oft-quoted claim by confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, who compared to Jefferson Davis, was a “moderate” on issues of slavery and race. Stephens noted that the Confederacy’s:

“cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

So in taking down these statues are we taking down history?

Yes! But it is not the taking down of the history of the Civil War. That history remains and is well preserved if you visit Gettysburg, Antietam, or Manassas.

The history that is being taken down is that which happened a generation after the Civil War. The history that protesters are refusing to celebrate is that of a successful post-reconstruction effort to make acceptable – even honorable – a racist and segregated society long after emancipation and equal protection were American law.

 

“Along Monument Avenue” by barxtux is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A New Year

New Day

It is that time of year. That is, time for a new one. A new year.

New Year was never a big deal in my family. We had three holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. If you discern a Christian faith-based theme you’ve got it right. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and thanks be to God. That was about all that merited big celebrations and brouhaha in our home.

Other annual celebrations – birthdays, anniversaries, a new year – well, they never quite made the cut.

Part of that was likely due to my parents midwestern and Depression-era roots. Another day was just another day. The sun will come up. There will be work to be done. There will be mouths to
feed, clothes to wash, bills to pay. Just like the day before.

That may seem curmudgeonly if not depressing to some, but there was a flip-side to this practical and seemingly unsentimental view of life that is both liberating and exciting.

One the one hand, every day is the same day. But on the other hand, every day is its own day. A new day, if you will perhaps even a new year.  The flip side of “another day is just another day” is this: “every day merits its own celebration.” No need to wait for a birthday to celebrate your life. No need for an anniversary to celebrate your marriage. No need for a new calendar to celebrate past accomplishments or to set new goals. You have the opportunity to do each one of those things every day! Why pack them all in one? What are you going to do with the other 364?

For Mom and Dad, this way of thinking was particularly applicable for resolutions, something we commonly associate with a New Year. If you want to do something – set a goal, accomplish a dream, make a change, quite a bad habit, start a good one – shoot, you can do that any day! You can do that today! Why wait for a “special day” to make that happen? Before there was a Nike, there was a Mom and Dad who would say that if you wanted to do something, well, “just do it!”

So it is in that spirit that I write to all those celebrating the New Year with their lists of goals and resolutions – good luck! I hope you achieve them all. But know this. There is a good chance that you’ll fall short in one or more (all?). But that’s ok. Because there is always tomorrow. And you can try again. And again. The sun will come up. There will be work to be done. There will be mouths to feed, clothes to wash, bills to pay. Just like the day before. But there’s no need to wait for another year to roll by. You can try it again tomorrow. And the next day.

Similarly, for those who have “given up” on New Year’s resolutions, take heart. Resolutions aren’t contingent on January 1 st . You can make that resolution any time. Today, in fact! Yes, you’ll likely fall short, just like those who woke up January 1 st clinging to their resolutions with an earnest intensity only to see them in tatters a month later. That’s ok too. You too, can try again tomorrow. Or the next day.

So Happy New Year. Because every day is a new day. Every day is a New Year.

A Song for Its Time … and a Dime

For those of you who are readers of the JuiceBar, the following essay is part of a Web 2.0 exercise in presenting a popular culture artifact for the graduate course Teaching & Learning Historical Thinking, part of the George Mason University College of Education and Human Development Secondary Education (SEED) Program. The requirement is a Web 2.0 exercise that could be used in a high school history course. In this case, I’m using this blog post to engage students on how music can provide insight into history. I hope you enjoy it. And feel free to pretend you are in my high school history class and offer your thoughts on current songs that give insight on what is going on in today’s social, economic and political culture.

Folks, the topic today is popular culture. Specifically, what you can learn about history and a historical period through popular culture. By popular culture, I thinking about things like movies, fashion, and music. 

In this case, let’s take a look at music.

Music is often both a reflection of and reaction to the political, economic, and social trends in a given period. Take the issue of war and conflict. In American history, we have songs of the American Revolution, Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War. If you’re interested, just try “Googling” any of those wars and “music.” You’ll get some interesting lists. Most of the songs of earlier wars were written to support the cause. But there were others that gave voice to the opposition to war.Others oppose it. If you’re looking for something that typifies the latter, listen to my favorite anti-Vietnam anthem, Edwin Star’s “War” which was popular protest song during Vietnam. It is a classic.

But music isn’t just reflective of or a reaction to conflict.  When you think about American history in general, you can identify music that is reflective of social movements in everything from the suffragette movement (it even has a Spotify channel!) to desegregation in the 60s to the LGBT movement and Katy Perry’s song “I kissed a girl.”

[Hold on to that thought because a bit later I’m going to ask you to identify a song in popular culture today that, in your opinion, is reflective in some way of what is going on in today’s society.]

In this case, we’re going to focus on songs that reflect the economic developments. This was particularly true of the songs of the 30s and the Great Depression. The depth and scope of the Great Depression are hard to appreciate today.  At its height nearly a quarter of Americans were unemployed. Amidst these dark times emerged a lot of upbeat music (most notably, swing music). In that case, one can interpret music as a reaction to the downbeat mood. There were a lot of those – upbeat tunes and lyrics, that is. Hard to imagine that one of the most popular titles during those years was a 1933 tune called “We’re in the Money.” Ironic since most people weren’t (in the money, that is) but sociologist speculate that tunes like this gave people who otherwise had no hope, hope.

But in terms of a song that best truly reflected the era was the tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” which came out in 1932 at the deepest periods of unemployment. I’ve copied and pasted the lyrics to the song below.

The tune, which first was sung as part of a review titled “Americana” became the “anthem” for workers during the Great Depression. It was a thinly veiled indictment of a capitalist economic system that many people felt had “left behind” the workers that built America.

The song chronicles the story of the workers who built the nation’s railroads, buildings, and infrastructure as well as those who fought in the gruesome first World War (“khaki suits”) and how the U.S. economic system seemingly deserted them during the depression and now they are forced to “beg” for money.

Not only can the tune give insight into the 1930s one could also be used to gain insight into today’s modern economic malaise.

Specifically, you can read through the lyrics of this song and hear the same complaints that many American workers in the Midwest have today about the loss of good-paying manufacturing blue collar jobs due to automation and international trade.

NOW HERE’S MY ASK of you.  Comment on this blog post. Feel free to react to anything I’ve written above but I want you to specifically comment on the lyrics of this song and how you think it gave voice to workers in the Great Depression. But wait, there’s more! In your comment I also want you to identify a relatively current song – say something in the last five years – that you think captures one element of what is going on in today’s culture, economy, or politics. If you can’t find one, feel free to write a song of your own! One important note. Let’s keep any current song one that is free from explicatives or vulgar language. I know that knocks out quite a few. But think about some of the songs that are on your favorite playlist over the past few years and think about what that song helps describe developments in today’s society, culture, politics or … economics!  BTW if you want to rewrite the song below for today, you’ll have to change the numbers. A dime back in the 1930s would be about a buck fifty today ($1.47).

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,

When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,

Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;

Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,

Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,

Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,

And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.

Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,

Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,

Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,

And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.

Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

What Social Media Hath Wrought

Recently, a young man responded to a post that my wife, Sanderijn, put on her Facebook page.  What followed is something you really need to read for yourself to fully appreciate but the quick summary is this.

Our daughter, Sarah, and her two children were in town for the weekend. Sanderijn, Sarah and Sarah’s two boys aged two and four, decided to enjoy the Friday autumn afternoon by walking down to Lake Anne Plaza. Once there, Sanderijn “checked-in” on Facebook at the Lake Anne Brew House with the post “Beer time with very social 2 and 4-year-olds.”

Someone was not amused. He wrote “I can’t express how wrong this sounds. Does someone need to call CPS?”

(Note. For the uninitiated, CPS stands for Child Protective Services, a Virginia government body whose mission is reflected in its title).

What followed was a marvelous (and personal) example of three ways social media is destroying civil communication. As a communications professional, it is something I will quote at length in future presentations and lectures.

First, the reaction by a person who will go by the name of “Mr. Bk,” along with his following comments, is a case study in “virtue signaling.”

Virtue signaling is when someone uses social networks, in this case, someone else’s post, to show others how morally correct they are. In this case, one Mr. Bk is signaling his moral superiority by (continually) noting his compassion and in this case concern, for children being exposed to someone drinking a beer in public.

Oh, the horror!

After his initial, ill-informed righteous outrage, he follows by constantly reminding us of his benevolence, patience, wisdom, search for truth, care for humanity, and steadfast purity of spirit. He even goes so far as to remind readers they should be grateful and that we are so lucky to have people like him around.

This is the wonderful thing about virtue signaling:  you can claim and broadcast your piety and virtue through social networks without actually having to do anything to merit it.

Second, the Facebook exchange is an example of how communicating through social networks makes you stupid. We think the Internet makes us smart. It doesn’t. It lures us into doing and saying stupid things because doing and saying stupid things are now so easy to do.

Hit a few buttons and “poof”! You’re in someone’s face. And you’ve written something stupid. No knowledge or context needed.

The irony here is that a simple 10-second search by Mr. Bk would have shown that the Lake Anne Brew House is located in Lake Anne Plaza, Reston, Virginia, a wholesome family and child-friendly lake development with fountains and play areas and kids joyously running and screaming and doing what kids do in a fresh open-air environment. He would have also found that the Brew House serves apple juice and kids snacks, that it is adjacent to a Baptist church and coffee shop, and that across the plaza is a used bookstore with a wonderful selection of kids books along with a second-hand children’s clothing store.

But no.

The ease and ubiquity of social networks – which we can carry with us and never leaves either our hand or watchful eye –  give us access to others 24/7. These mobile devices act as technological sirens, who, like those of Greek mythology, lure consumers into countless acts of ignorance, typing and posting without making any effort to determine or deal with reality.

Instead, we see the word “beer” followed the phrase “4-year-old” and immediately express a virtual “OMG!, some drunken sot is dragging innocent babes into the devil’s chamber” and wonder aloud if someone should call 911 and child protective services!

The ease and speed of social network communications mean we often speak first, think later. That’s a bad combination.

Side note. Mr. Bk’s rants are also a good example of the well-known cognitive bias called “anchoring.” That happens when you stick with an initial position even after being confronted by conflicting facts – in this case being told that the initial post was from a mother, grandmother, and social worker of 20+ years who has spent a good part of her life working with children and youth to try and help them escape from real risky and abusive situations. That the grandmother walked to the plaza (Mr. Bk at one point suggested everyone call a cab) and had a single beer.

None of this information impressed Mr. Bk.

He stuck by his figurative guns and insisted not only that he did the right thing, but that he would do it again and that, yes, we should be grateful for him doing so. Indeed, he found it “disturbing” that we didn’t care much for his ill-informed post and decided not to shower him with praise.

 

Finally, it was a wonderful example of social media troll behavior.

A social media troll always has to have the last word. They can’t let something go. They become so intoxicated with themselves and their posts (which they consider an extension of themselves … perhaps even more important than themselves!) that they HAVE to respond.

In the example above, Mr. Bk not only has to have the last word with others but he amazingly also has to have the last word with himself, often posting a series of replies absent anyone else commenting or saying anything.

For these people, their position is so correct, their thoughts are so right, and everything they think is so important for people to understand and accept, that they post unceasingly in a desperate attempt to force their views upon others.

So this is this is how social media and social networks have warped the world modern social interaction.

A place where people use social networks to draw attention to their moral superiority.

A place where there’s a premium on saying something before thinking something.

A place where people become so addicted to their own voice and seeing that voice in print, that they are unwilling and unable to stop themselves from perpetuating meaningless half-truths.

And yes. All this is why the United States has the president that it has today!

.

Click

... ten years worth of thinking, creating, writing was gone.

It was the simple flick of a switch.

It apparently wasn’t a physical switch like the light switch jutting from a wall. Rather, it was likely a swipe or click. A simple movement of a finger over a plane of glass or the pressure of a hand placed on a button while the pointer hovered over a two-dimensional image on a screen.

But a flicked switch nonetheless. With it, ten years worth of thinking, creating, writing was gone.

For the few of you out there that follow the JuiceBar, you may have noticed that for several weeks – nearly a month – the blog lost all its content. It was a colleague at work who gave me the heads up (thanks, Jane!). So I checked. I went to the site and every post was gone. It was as if someone had come in, opened all the files, put them in a suitcase, and ran off.

Ten years of posts. Gone. Vanished.

Part of me was devastated. Gone was the eulogy I wrote for my Mom on Christmas Eve, the day I learned she had passed away. Gone were posts I had written about my Dad on Father’s Day. Gone were the posts about my daughter’s wedding. Gone the post about my grandson’s interaction with a beetle and blackbird. Personal things. Serious things. Silly things. And yes, some pretentious and plodding things.

All were gone. Both the wheat and the chaff.

I spent days trying to figure out what happened. In the end, a consultant who was working with us and the hosting company said it was a simple mis-administered switch.

An errant click.

I’m happy to report that things are back to normal. But it did make me think a lot about how much of my life is invested in things that are nothing more than digits on a server. Things that with a simple errant click can disappear.

On a practical level it makes me appreciate physical things like paper, photo albums, and books. Sure, they can suffer the same fate, as folks in Houston or Key West or San Juan know all too well. But I am going to try to write more in journals. Print more on paper. Rediscover the file folder.

But in the end, this event reminded me of the transience of all things physical. Whether you keep them in the cloud or keep them in the closet. One you can lose to a hacker, you can lose the other to a flood.

What is lasting are relationships.

What is lasting are feelings.

What is lasting are those things that inspired your life, formed your life, shaped you and your family.

What is lasting those things that … well … last.

Think and focus on those lasting things.

And know that lasting things can’t be eliminated by a click.

Signs and Symbols

Signs and symbols

I think we should pay a lot more attention to signs and less attention to symbols.

Let’s start with whittling down our obsession with symbols.

What are symbols? They are things that represent an idea, person, process or thing.  They aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they can do a lot of good. Countries and cultures have them – typically in the form of an animal or flag or both. Each of the monotheistic religions has a symbol: a star, a cross, a crescent. There is the venerable symbol for peace, the circle with the lines thing, there’s the two-fingered victory symbol, and there’s the horrific symbol of fascism, the swastika. All inspiring in their own way.

But there are the other symbols, the ones we could and should pay a lot less attention to. They are the symbols we create to satisfy what we can’t fully grasp. Symbols are, by definition, simplified labels. And because of that, they rarely fully capture the complexity of the true nature of the idea, person, process or thing they purport to represent. This is particularly true when that symbol is applied to a person or persona.

  • The symbol we create when we see the dreadlocked twentysomething African American male, dark glasses, a hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants
  • The symbol we create when we see the round-bellied truck driver with a long drawl, heavy beard, tobacco-stained camo t-shirt and gun rack
  • The symbol we create when we see the long-braided, fair-skinned yoga instructor in designer leggings and delicate ankle tattoo, sipping herbal tea

These are symbols just like the peace sign, victory sign, and swastika. When you read them – just as when you see these physical symbols – you likely had some reaction to them. You probably inferred a lot about that person’s upbringing, their politics, or whether you’d enjoy their company.

Symbols are handy because they are simple. But that is also what makes them dangerous. When assigned to people they can lead to three very bad things.

  • Symbols rob people and things of their intricacy and nuance. They can make things unidimensional. And neither things nor people are unidimensional.
  • Symbols absorb stereotypes like a dry sponge. They allow us to create meaning but in doing so they allow us to insert all the prejudice and preconceptions not just from popular culture but also our individual and community biases.
  • Symbols unite through division. They inevitably draw people inward and have them define themselves in opposition to “the other.”

Carl Jung distinguished between symbols and signs saying that symbols represent the unknown while signs point to what is known.

I think we all could use a bit more focus on those things that we know, and less on conjecture and those things that are beyond our knowing.

That is where signs come in. There are a lot of signs around us. They are most often hidden in things we already know and experience. These signs aren’t abstract. They point to things that are happening, things that are real. There are signs of what is happening to our politics, our economy, our environment, our families, our health. Signs are everywhere. We just don’t take the time to see or make sense of them.

Unlike symbols, signs don’t claim to possess the truth. Rather they point us to facts and those facts, which in turn, point us to truth. In that way, signs are much more humble and modest than symbols. (And Lord knows that this world could use more humility and modesty.)  But in another sense, that is exactly why we often choose to ignore or not look for signs. Because facts, reality, and truth can be very difficult.

So we fall back to the comfort of our biases and our symbols.

In her book “The Signals Are Talking,” author Amy Webb claims that if you can identify and correctly interpret signs or signals, you have a reasonable shot at predicting the future.  I’m not sure about that.

But she also says that only by identifying and reading “signs” or “signals” do we have a reasonable shot at shaping the future.  In that, I firmly believe.

So look around you. Set aside all the symbols that you have in your life.  Focus on opening your eyes and minds and look for signs.

What signs do you see?

If we can agree on the signs, we might be able to agree on a common direction.

And if we do that, perhaps we can do without all those symbols.

When we promote …

Promotions. We’re talking about people, not product.

I recently went through promotions at my work and at my avocation. My work is marketing communications business. My avocation is Karate.

At work, we have annual performance reviews. There is the question of whether you promote a person to a higher level of responsibility, higher pay and perhaps a new title.

At most martial arts schools, it is different. I’ve taught Karate at Williams Martial Arts and Fitness for over twenty years. Opportunities for promotions are more frequent than annual reviews at work. Here they can happen  every other month or quarter. Students complete their routines and are tested on the mat.  Then there is the ceremony itself – a formalism and public pageantry which would likely be illegal in today’s workplace setting. Parents and friends are there to watch.

And as we award the karate-ka the next ranking and perhaps even a new belt, we state the following:

you are hereby awarded the rank of [X] kyu in the art of karate-do in recognition of the great progress you have made by your diligent study of the art … it is our wish that you will endeavor to attain a higher standard in the future …”

I have said it so many times I can recite it by memory.  As I think about those words, I think about what those outside of the martial arts world – those in the business world – could learn about the true meaning of meriting  a “promotion.”

First, there is the “great progress you have made …”

This is something most would agree. We should promote after, not before.  Progress first, promotion after. Too often we convince ourselves that we “see promise” in someone and promote them in hope that our hunch is on mark.  My experience in business is that too often our hunch is wrong.  For my Marine-trained sensei, it is simple.  First show that you have the skills for the next rank. But not just that. Show that you have the ability sustain those skills over time. Then, and only then, are you granted the promotion.

Second, there is the person’s “diligent study of the art …”

We promote in recognition of work. It is commendable that someone has been around for awhile. They’ve stayed the course. Loyalty is important. But true promotion should be an outgrowth of effort, not tenure.

Finally, there is the person’s “endeavor to attain a higher standard in the future …”

With this, I’ve likely crossed the border both of what is politically correct and what is HR compliant. In the martial arts world, you promote based on evidence that the person seeks to improve his or her station. They have to exhibit some desire to advance the art – the desire to not only improve their own skills but also the skills of others.

We could learn from that. You can make progress. You can work hard. But if someone doesn’t want to get better and is completely content to stay where they are and not move to a greater level of both skill and responsibility, is a promotion really merited? I don’t think so.

Three simple standards.  You’ve made progress. You’ve worked hard. You want to do better.

That, to me, is a reasonable standard for a promotion.

Whether you are in the dojo or the workplace.

Truth Takes a Beating … But No Lie Lives Forever

In the famous exchange between Jesus of Nazareth and the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate, Jesus is recorded as claiming “everyone on the side of truth, listens to me.” Pilate dismissively responds, “What is truth?” and walks out of the room.

Truth.

It has never been very popular.  It is taking a particular beating these days.  Consider this:

Two years ago Twitter said that 23 million of its 271 million users were not people, but “bots” – programs that automatically generate content based on an algorithm.

According to BuzzFeed founder, Craig Silverman, during the recent election, “fake news” was more popular than “real news.”  Total Facebook engagement with the top twenty “fake news” election stories was greater than the top twenty “real news” stories.

According to the independent, Pulitzer-prize winning watchdog organization PolitiFact, 70 percent of the U.S. president-elect’s campaign statements were rated as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire False. And he won!

But it is not just a campaign thing.  Recently we’ve seen Volkswagen claim their diesel engines to be environmentally friendly. But they weren’t. There was the Toshiba executive who said they made an extra $2 billion in earnings. But they didn’t. And then there was Wells Fargo who gave extra credit cards.  Without asking.

Truth isn’t popular. It exposes you to seeing and hearing things you don’t like.

  • That you are not perfect.
  • That you are oftentimes wrong.
  • That you make mistakes.
  • That sometimes you hurt people – maybe many.
  • That whatever it is, most of the time it’s not about you.

We don’t like Truth. So we avoid it. We cover it up. We change the subject. 

We won’t admit to lying.  That would be wrong (lying that is). So we give lying a different name.  We call it “fake news.”  Or the latest, “alternative facts.” 

What are they?  Truthfully?  They are lies.

But don’t despair.

Truth has an annoying way of hanging around. Just when you think you’ve beaten it, killed it and buried it … Truth shows up. Maybe not the next day.  Or the next. But one day.

And at some point, things either are or are not.  No amount of prevarication or mendacity can prevent Truth from having the last word.

I’m betting on truth.  It might lose a battle or two but it always wins the war.

Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting Thomas Carlyle who wrote “No lie can live forever!”

That, I believe, is true.

Gratitude.

Gratitude.

It can change your brain.

It can make you healthy.

It can make you happy.

But if you buy into gratitude for those reasons, I think you’re missing the point. You may not even be expressing “true” gratitude at all.

Gratitude has been defined as the “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” I like that. Recognizing and returning kindness. We often talk about the former – recognizing. We rarely think of the latter – returning. Gratitude goes beyond acknowledgment. It is an obligation – no, a true desire – to be compassionate towards others.

Today is Thanksgiving Day. One of my favorite holidays. I know there are the banal and commercial elements surrounding Thanksgiving’s origin, propagation and celebration. But let’s set the storefront parade, football games, and Black Friday aside for a moment and think of what it means to be truly thankful.

The beauty of thankfulness is that it is something that everyone can enjoy. From the most popular, affluent and talented to the forgotten, impoverished and plain. Thankfulness is accessible to anyone regardless of origin, condition, and belief. To be sure, gratitude is much more difficult for some than others. Hard for someone in Aleppo to be thankful. Or those who suffer from illness. Or those who have lost jobs, possessions, health, loved ones … perhaps even themselves. But gratitude isn’t comparative. It is not about being thankful that you’re not like the other. It is about being thankful for who you are what others have done for you regardless of station. It is about showing appreciation for others and their acts of kindness both large and small.

I have been blessed beyond merit because I’ve merited little. So thanks. Thanks to all of you out there who have looked past my and others’ faults and have shown grace and kindness.

Thanks to those who’ve suffered through much and still persevere. Thanks for another day to try and the opportunity to do something – even a small thing – that makes things better. Let’s try to be thankful not for the sake of how it might help our brain, our health, or our happiness. But let’s be thankful because it is a proper response to the life we’ve been given.

Happy Thanksgiving.